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Taking care of yourself

Your needs

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Being a carer is hard work, but you need to look after yourself. There are so many demands on your time every day that it can be difficult to find time for yourself. That stress can build up, so looking after yourself is important when you're a carer. Keeping well reduces the risk of you being unable to look after someone due to a problem with your own health.

But no one can plan for every eventuality, and we all get ill sometimes. This page provides some ideas for keeping well, and the rest of this section gives some positive steps that carers can take to look after their own needs.

Healthy diet

Eating well is a vital part of looking after yourself. A balanced diet includes at least five different portions of fruit and vegetables a day. These can be fresh, frozen and tinned.

Starchy foods such as bread, cereals, potatoes, pasta and rice are also vital. About a third of your diet should consist of starchy foods. Choose wholegrain bread or cereal as these are higher in fibre and nutrients such as B vitamins, calcium and iron.

Cut back on salt and sugar. The same goes for saturated fats and trans fats. They can push up your cholesterol levels and increase your risk of heart disease. Unsaturated fats, on the other hand, can reduce your cholesterol levels and provide you with essential fatty acids.

For more information, see Live Well: good food.

Exercise

Exercise is vital for your physical and mental health. It helps you deal with stress and makes you feel better emotionally. Physical activity also helps to make your heart stronger, keeps you supple and reduces all sorts of health risks. Walking, swimming, housework, gardening and even walking up stairs can make a difference.

Ideally, you should take 30 minutes of moderate exercise on five or more days a week. Moderate exercise is activity that makes you feel warmer and breathe more heavily than usual. If you haven't taken any exercise recently, build up slowly. And if you have any existing health problems, ask your GP for advice before you start.

For more information, see Live Well: fitness.

Sleep

If you're looking after someone who needs a lot of care or you're combining caring with a job, or are feeling depressed, you probably aren’t getting enough sleep. This, in turn, can make it harder to cope, and it can further affect your mental health.

If you're having trouble sleeping, try to take some exercise during the day, as this can help. Relaxation exercises can also help. Sit comfortably in a quiet place, close your eyes and concentrate on breathing slowly and deeply. As you breathe, tense and then relax each part of your body in turn until you have gone from your toes to your head.

If you can't sleep because the person you care for wakes you, you may need to get extra help. Talk to your local authority and ask them either to assess your needs and the needs of the person you're caring for, or to look again at any assessments that have been done in the past.

For more information, see Live Well: sleep.

Tell people

If you are struggling to manage, are feeling isolated or down, let your family and friends know.

A break from caring

Your main obstacle to looking after yourself may well be finding the time to exercise, think about your diet or have some time to yourself. If you're unable to leave the person you care for unattended, you will need to organise some alternative care for them. For more information, see getting time off.

Giving up caring

Most people don't plan to be a carer. There are more than 6 million carers in the UK and, of these, around 3 million combine work with caring.

You may consider giving up work to be a full-time carer, or combining work and care. Alternatively, you might decide to give up caring. The choice is yours, whether the person you're looking after needs a high level of care or not.

There are many reasons why you might want to give up caring. It may be because:

  • you're finding it too stressful
  • you can't cope physically
  • you need to go back to work or work longer hours because you need the additional income

Whatever the reason, you shouldn't feel guilty. Caring is always a choice and the choice is yours. You may wish to discuss your plans to give up caring with friends and family before you make a decision.

There's support available when you're looking after someone. You may be able to get help with:

  • Benefits and tax credits for you and the person you're looking after.
  • Practical support from your local authority for you and the person you're looking after.
  • Employment rights – you have the right to request flexible working if you're a carer. You may have other rights too.

It may take some time to adjust when your caring role ends. Having more time to yourself may result in a feeling of emptiness because your days are no longer filled with caring responsibilities. Some former carers find it difficult to make decisions solely for themselves.

Some people find that without the responsibility of caring, physical and emotional exhaustion catches up with them and they become ill for a period of time. It's important to take some time to recharge your batteries. If possible, let family and friends look after you for a while.

It's important that you look after yourself, whether you have decided to give up caring or not. Eat healthily and take exercise when you can. It not only helps to keep your heart healthy but also improves your mental wellbeing.

Practical arrangements

If you decide to give up caring, you must inform the social services department of the person you look after so that they can provide appropriate support. If you receive Carer’s Allowance or any other caring-related benefits, you will need to report the change in your circumstances to the Department for Work and Pensions.

Returning to work

If you have chosen to end your caring role, you may wish to return to work. If you have been out of the workplace for a while then you may have lost self-confidence. However, as a carer you will have learnt some new skills that may benefit many employers. Some employers actively recruit carers who want to return to work after a period of caring. Your local Jobcentre Plus can offer advice on returning to work.

Becoming a volunteer

Alternatively, you may choose to do some volunteering work for a while, or refresh your skills by learning something new. Again, the choice is yours. Volunteering England and Community Service Volunteers have useful advice on how to become a volunteer.

Bereavement: life after being a carer

When the person you've been caring for dies, there is support available to you. In this video, former carers discuss how they coped with their grief and found a new purpose in life.

Media last reviewed: 14/12/2012

Next review due: 14/12/2014

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Page last reviewed: 19/08/2013

Next review due: 19/08/2015

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